Tharanga Goonetilleke is a Juilliard-trained Sri Lankan opera singer who has sung internationally, including with the New York City Opera, at Carnegie Hall and the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka while providing free master classes, workshops and recitals in South Asia and the US. She is also a TED Fellow.
I first met Tharanga years ago in New York, where what I thought would be a meeting around opera and classic music, turned out to be an engaging conversation around the complexities of cognitive neuroscience and the concept of neuroplasticity. Tharanga was interested in figuring out how brains worked the way they did, by studying, amongst others, those from the performing arts. I was interested in how the brain influences how we react and respond to what we perceive, especially in the domains of political communication and social media. In many ways, the conversation we started then continues to date.
Tharanga was in Sri Lanka to perform with the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka (SoSL), as Guest Soloist at the ‘Celebrating 60 Years: Tribute to Dr. Earle de Fonseka’ concert, held on October 19 at the Ladies’ College Hall.
I asked Tharanga if she was agreeable to do a short video interview for Groundviews, which she very kindly said yes to. Our conversation starts on around how local audiences today appreciate the arts in general, and musical performances in particular. We go into how she started her career and what inspired her to take up opera. Quite unusually, she also did subjects like calculus, biology and chemistry as part of her university education, and in the video, she explains why.
We also talk about her original and extremely detailed art and drawings, featured for the first time in Sri Lanka, and how it came about through conversations with Dr. Shohini Ghose, from the Wilfrid Laurier University’s Centre for Women in Science. Tharanga goes into some detail around what first prompted her to take up a pen and paper to sketch figures, and how this led to an absolutely compelling new collaboration with Dr. Ghose that sits at the intersection of art, music, opera, gender, feminisms, science and discovery.
We also touch on the politics of colour (not just in the US), and how tonality of skin impacts the perceptions that govern so much of human interaction, including for Tharanga, the recognition that she is an opera singer. Our conversation ends by talking about, as one must, Artificial Intelligence, and whether Tharanga feels that AI will in any meaningful way, impact the pursuit of an art like opera.
In between, also to make our video at least a tad useful for those in Sri Lanka who (only and quickly) want to know how Tharanga has achieved professionally, I also ask her top tips for budding singers. Her answers will be surprising to many.
Watch the interview directly on Facebook here.